Lawrie McMenemy: The Gentle Giant (part one)



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‘The Genial Giant’, ‘The Affable Geordie’, ‘A Real Man’s Man – all epitaphs to describe the six-foot-five-inches former Coldstream Guard and ex-Southampton manager, Lawrie McMenemy.

Born in 1936 in Gateshead, McMenemy is now well into old age but is still going strong safe in the knowledge that his legacy as a footballing giant – literally as well as figuratively – is secure despite only having one major trophy to his name.

Famously never playing football at a particularly high level, McMenemy was on the books at Newcastle United but never made a first-team appearance. Undeterred, he signed for Gateshead, by then already voted out of the Football League.

This decision taken by the Chairmen of the Football League was a very harsh one and the people of Gateshead – McMenemy included – always believed it was politically based rather than football-related. Gateshead had finished third from bottom of the league in 1960 but had been voted out in favour of the southern-based Peterborough United, and many believe to this day that it was purely for geographical reasons that Gateshead lost their league place.

For McMenemy, joining his local club came after a spell in National Service as a Coldstream Guard. By all accounts, he was a decent soldier but whatever hopes he had harboured of forging a career in professional football as a player disappeared when he suffered a foot injury during his service.

Playing for Gateshead was a consolation for not being able to pursue a league career but even that would come to a premature end with another injury in his mid-twenties. By then, McMenemy had already taken the first steps in a coaching career by taking courses with the FA and was involved as an assistant coach or trainer at Gateshead. This continued for a few years until a vacancy for manager at the famous amateur side, Bishops Auckland arose and McMenemy was duly appointed at the age of 28.

Success came to the young manager in the form of the Northern League title in 1965 and after two more seasons, a chance arose for McMenemy to move to Sheffield Wednesday as a coach under Alan Brown. McMenemy would regard Brown as a mentor and after working alongside him for a couple of seasons, McMenemy was given the opportunity to move into management in his own right.

Despite never having kicked a ball in the Football League, McMenemy was appointed manager of basement club, Doncaster Rovers, in 1968. The discipline he had learnt in the army combined with the grounding he’d had in non-league and then working with Alan Brown at Sheffield Wednesday proved dividends and under his tutelage, the club won the Fourth Division title in 1969. Mid-table security was achieved the next season but in 1971 disaster struck and Doncaster were relegated after a final-day defeat at Torquay United and somewhat harshly, McMenemy was sacked.

However, unemployment was not on the agenda for very long as just a couple of weeks later, McMenemy found himself being interviewed for the managerial vacancy at relatively nearby Grimsby Town, also in the Fourth Division. The McMenemy effect was immediate and in 1972 the earlier achievement of taking the Fourth Division title with Doncaster was replicated.

A season of consolidation in the Third Division followed and a more than respectable ninth place was achieved. This steady progress meant that McMenemy was getting noticed amongst bigger clubs within the Football League and he was invited to interview for a position at First Division Southampton where Ted Bates was manager.

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Bates had been manager of the Saints for many years and was on the verge of going into semi-retirement and so it was decided that he would maintain the title of ‘Manager’ with McMenemy given the moniker of ‘Manager Designate’ but in effect being in charge of team matters.

It was a confusing arrangement and initially, there were problems with some of the senior players accepting the situation. McMenemy found he was walking into a situation where there was less discipline than there had been in both his previous positions much lower down the leagues and to begin with it was hard for both sides to adapt.

After a few months, the ‘designate’ was dropped from McMenemy’s job title and that helped a little, but results on the pitch were not good in that 1973-74 season and Southampton became the first victims of the Football League’s decision to introduce a three-up, three-down promotion and relegation scenario rather than the two-team situation that had existed previously.

Relegation to the Second Division could well have spelt the sack for McMenemy, but fortunately, he had the backing of the board who stood by him and gave him the support he needed.

Southampton would then spend the next four seasons in the Second Division but it is this period in which McMenemy really began to make his mark in the game and for many people, it is what he is best remembered for to this day.

Amongst the players preparing for life in the Second Division were Mick Channon and the recently signed Peter Osgood. Neither were expected to be especially delighted at the prospect of second-flight football, Channon particularly so as he was a current England international, but McMenemy persuaded them to stay and slowly started the rebuilding process.

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A mid-table finish in 1974-75 gave little hint of what was to occur the following season in what has gone down as the greatest in the club’s long history. With the side handily tucked in at the start of 1976, promotion was the aim of the club but just five months later the tables had turned and Southampton had achieved the seemingly impossible.

A last-gasp equaliser at home to Aston Villa kept the Saints in the FA Cup in the third round and when the replay at Villa Park was won by the odd goal in three, a fourth-round date with Blackpool was on the cards. A simple enough 3-1 victory at the Dell was followed by an away draw at West Bromwich Albion in round five. A 4-0 victory in the replay was enough to set up a last-eight clash at Fourth Division Bradford City.

The biggest day at that point in time in Bradford’s recent history was a white-hot affair with the home side trying every trick in the book to try and unsettle their Second Division counterparts before the game. The old tricks of putting salt in the visitors’ tea, turning off the electricity in the away changing room and even – allegedly – blocking up the toilets were meant to unsettle the Saints. However, none of it had quite the desired effect and a single-goal victory put Southampton into the last four alongside Third Division Crystal Palace, defending League Champions Derby County and double-chasing Manchester United.

Hopes of the so-called ‘Dream Final’ of United V Derby were dashed when the two sides were drawn together and met at Hillsborough, leading United Manager, Tommy Docherty, to declare it the ‘Real Final’ with the other match-up of Crystal Palace and Southampton at Stamford Bridge as ‘a bit of a joke’. Always good for a quote, Tommy Doc’s words would come back to bite him later on.

While United were defeating Derby courtesy of two Gordon Hill goals, Southampton and Crystal Palace were locked goalless on 75 minutes in West London. It was then that Paul Gilchrist opened the scoring for Southampton and a late penalty converted by David Peach secured a 2-0 victory and set up a May Day clash at Wembley between McMenenmy and Docherty.

Both United and Southampton had league games between the semi-final and final, of course, and while the Old Trafford men chased the league title, Southampton were in with a chance of promotion. As it happened, both sides fell away in their remaining league games and so when the Wembley clash came around it was the last chance for glory for both sides.

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Manchester United were the overwhelming favourites with Southampton’s odds of victory being quoted in some quarters as no shorter than 6 to 1. On a personal note, I remember watching the game as a seven-year-old wanting Southampton to win to wind up my United-supporting father but being pretty convinced The Doc’s boys would prevail.

Lawrie McMenenemy was ready for the challenge, though. Pinpointing United’s semi-final hero, Gordon Hill, as the key to the Old Trafford’s side success, he detailed Peter Rodrigues to man-mark the United winger and he did such a tremendous job that Hill was substituted after 66 minutes with the scoreline still blank.

Legend has it that Hill was so surprised at seeing the number 11 card go up, that he checked with the bench first.

“What, me?” he is said to have mouthed to Docherty.

“No, the whole f**** team. What do you think?” came back the curt response.

Either way, by this point in the match things were not going anywhere near as planned for the United boys (or the old man), as Southampton had weathered United’s early onslaught and were slowly taking control in the middle of the pitch. The fast-flowing football that Docherty’s young team had grown famous for over the past two seasons was nullified and although Southampton weren’t looking particularly dangerous themselves, United’s youngsters were getting more and more frustrated.

Then with less than ten minutes of the ninety remaining the pivotal moment of the match arrived. Jim McCalliog laid a ball over the top of the United defence for striker Bobby Stokes to run onto. Stokes hit it first time left-footed, taking Alex Stepney in the United goal by surprise, and Southampton were ahead. To this day, some United fans maintain Stokes was offside, but by carefully freeze-framing the action, one can see United’s number 4, Gerry Daly, almost certainly playing Stokes onside.

It was the last real action of the game and United had fallen to one of the biggest cup final shocks of all time. With the victory, McMenemy’s legacy was secure and from that moment on he has been considered one of the giants of English football management.

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In the second and final part of our look back at the times and career of Lawrie McMenemy, we will consider his career at The Dell post-cup final success, his relationship with players such as Mick Channon, Peter Osgood, Alan Ball and Kevin Keegan, an ill-fated spell at Sunderland and forays into international coaching and management with both England and Northern Ireland.